October 24, 2016 - From the October, 2016 issue

Sen. Bob Wieckowski Successfully Integrating Climate Adaptation Into California Law and Planning

Continuing coverage of the 2015-2016 California Legislative session that just concluded, TPR sat down with State Senator Bob Wieckowski, chair of Environmental Quality Committee, about his success as a freshman senator in passing significant legislation. Sen. Wieckowski, to highlight one success, authored the recently signed SB 246 that addresses the challenges of coordinating regional and state efforts to integrate climate adaptation into planning.  Representing California’s 10th District, which includes Fremont and Santa Clara, he also worked to remove barriers to building accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in hopes of providing immediate relief to the historic housing shortage. Looking ahead, Sen. Wieckowski opines on the Legislature’s next steps on refining the cap-and-trade program, maximizing clean energy deployment throughout the West, and ensuring sustainable statewide water policies.


Sen. Bob Wieckowski

"I think the state’s cap-and-trade program could be improved following the Paris Agreement...I believe if we improved (it), we could build resiliency while investing in our at-risk infrastructure to address the negative impacts of climate change.” - Sen. Bob Wieckowski

Senator, you’ve had extraordinary success in your first term as a State Senator in passing legislation, with 17 Senate bills signed to date by the Governor and no vetoes. Let’s begin with your 2015 climate change adaption legislation, SB 246. How does that bill build upon California’s environmental policy leadership over the last decade? 

Sen. Bob Wieckowski: California made commitments over the decade to addressing climate change in AB 32 through the mitigation of greenhouse gases. AB 32 states that the two co-goals are adaptation and mitigation; you, however, cannot do adaptation projects on their own.

When I introduced SB 246, I started off with an informational hearing in the Capitol with department and agency leaders. Then I went out and listened to the locals. I wanted to find out what was missing on the adaptation side on a regional level—from the Bay Area to Los Angeles to the Central Valley.

We ended up creating the Integrated Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Program, which has an advisory council and provides technical expertise for cities. We want to make sure cities have the best tools to adapt. We did this by creating the state clearinghouse on best practices for adaptation strategies in the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.

Why does SB 246 rest administrative responsibility with the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) to assist and distribute adaptation technical expertise to local and regional planning entities?

OPR is supposed to develop and implement the plan as instructed by SB 246. We give them money to hire staff and create a website that local and regional governments can access. In the Governor’s administration, all the agencies work together on climate change. But OPR seemed to perform the duties of a state clearinghouse. Rather than add an additional layer of government, I decided to ask OPR to incorporate local governments into the existing interagency coordination. Our first public hearing in Sacramento was enlightening because we found out how many people who worked in adaptation had no idea of all the work being done in the Climate Action Teams. It was informative to have four of the Governor’s cabinet secretaries come to a public hearing and share their work with the local government folks who were previously unaware. 

Address the Legislature’s responsibility to encourage collaboration and coordination regarding adaptation within and among executive branch agencies, such as Natural Resources, vis-a-vis local government.

Let’s say we want to address sea-level rise, which is a significant cause of concern for communities in the Bay Area. If some well-to-do cities decided on their own to raise the money to create levees to protect their property values, the water would end up simply being redirected onto poorer communities. That’s why we need collaboration and coordination at the state level, and why we need to bring in scientists to determine the best efforts cities can undertake.

As you can imagine, different parts of the Bay Area show different symptoms of climate change, and each community is going to have new adaptation challenges. SB 246 was informed by needs and recommendations communicated during the Senate Environmental Quality Committee’s four informational hearings on climate adaptation, the Safeguarding California update, and the Little Hoover Commission’s “Governing California Through Climate Change” report.  The report found the need for a more unified approach to adaptation.

So, it’s about assuring that local governments have the best tools. And, frankly, it’s about money. Right now, there is no designated money coming in directly for local adaptation.

What possible revenue measures do you foresee the next legislative session advancing that could supply local jurisdictions with the resources needed to better address adaptation?

First, I think the state’s cap-and-trade program could be improved following the Paris Agreement. As part of the Paris Agreement, $100 billion in funding is going from donor countries to developing countries, and 23 percent of these funds are going to be devoted to adaptation efforts. I believe if we improved cap-and-trade, we could build resiliency while investing in our at-risk infrastructure to address the negative impacts of climate change. For instance, San Francisco International Airport is at-risk, and perhaps it could apply for cap-and-trade money as a “platinum level” adaptation project to preserve an existing asset. 

There is also a transportation measure that we are trying to get through as part of the special legislative session. This might be an area where we could put in language that would allow for climate adaptation. Climate adaptation is not an “either/or” issue. It can be built into mitigation and transportation proposals. There is also a possible direct appropriation. We can designate a certain amount of funding for projects to be undertaken by OPR, and for grants from the Strategic Growth Council.

Senator, by reputation you measure your legislative work by how much “stuff” you get done. With the public increasingly cynical about politics, elaborate on how you tackle the challenges of governing California.

The cliché holds true: There are show-horses and there are workhorses. We had a number of bills going through the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality– which I chair–related to the best ways to spend the cap-and-trade money. A lot of them were well meaning. But if we spent money on everything that everyone asked for in legislation, we would have spent $12 billion dollars. Obviously, we have to better target our spending and invest the public’s money wisely.

I believe much of the cynicism about politics derives from the negative campaigns and the vast amounts of money used to wage them. I prefer to focus on the issues and how to meet the challenges facing California. There is much work to do, but we are making progress compared to where we were six years ago and I think that is why the approval ratings for the Governor and Legislature are improving.  From gun violence, to homelessness, to tobacco cessation, we took on a lot of significant issues this year and it proved to be a successful term for the Legislature, Governor and people of California.    

Pivoting to water policy—speak to another of your bills that was passed successfully and signed by the GovernorSB 1263.

SB 1263 improves the state’s ability to ensure the delivery of reliable and safe drinking water in California. It limits the proliferation of small public water systems that lack the financial, managerial and technical skills to deliver safe drinking water over the long term. Under state law, Californians have a human right to reliable and safe drinking water. When we turn on the tap, we expect clean water to come out. This bill improves the delivery of that water over the long term to protect the public health. If a system doesn’t show the ability to safely manage the delivery of water, it should not be created in the first place and should be serviced by a larger, neighboring district.

In regards to the Delta, it is controversial. I think it’s a matter of redefining what people perceive as “other interests” in terms of water.

On my committee, I don’t directly oversee agricultural water and other uses, but I do have the requirement to ensure that safe drinking water is available. I have seen firsthand various water-efficiency technologies and seen what we could do in our communities. In San Jose, which uses a tertiary water system, we were able to include money in the previous session’s water bill to run the pipeline to recharge our underground basin. That part of the bill did not get a lot of fanfare, but it serves as a model for people to realize that we can create more potable water with the modern, 21st Century water treatment system.

Whoever invented the phrase “toilet-to-tap” did not do us any favors in terms of public perception. But in Alameda County, we found that you can eliminate the “yuck” factor of wastewater treatment by running the water through the groundwater system, because it’s seen as going through Mother Nature’s process. In my mind, that’s part of adaptation and resource management.

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To follow up, what is your position, as the chair of a juristically important senate committee, on Governor Brown’s WaterFix for the Delta? For instance, suppose there was an earthquake that cut the supply of water from the north to the south, there would be significant economic impacts to the entire state. Does that possibility resonate in Northern California as an argument to support the Governor’s Delta plan?

We recognize that we’re overdue for a major earthquake. The Hayward Fault typically goes off every 168 years, and we’re now at 178 years. The Governor has lots of big projects on the table besides the WaterFix plan—like high-speed rail, for example. But for the Delta, I maintain that there are alternatives on the efficiency side that can fix the problem.

Regarding the growing concern that California’s metropolises have insufficient affordable housing, Governor Brown has signed accessory dwelling units (ADU) bill, SB 1069, which aims to incent the production of more affordable housing.  What precisely does the bill provide?

In 2002, the state passed a bill asking cities to develop local ordinances that would allow for the production of second units. We had identified that as an efficient, inexpensive, reliable way to house people, yet many cities built no second units.

In fact, many cities had created barriers to doing so—like requiring that the unit have sprinklers, increased setbacks, or off-street covered parking. Then they’d turn around and tell the press, “We have a housing crisis! We need to build housing—but not in my backyard.”

I began addressing the issue at the city level when I served on the Fremont City Council. We all knew, just from walking around our neighborhoods, that there were plenty of illegal units already. This year I worked with UC Berkeley and CityLab UCLA to identify the legal barriers, and I had ambitious ideas for how to break them down with the help of the Bay Area Council and many organizations from Los Angeles and throughout the State.

In SB 1069, we return power to the homeowner by eliminating unnecessary barriers that prevent the construction of accessory dwelling units. We have a housing crisis in California and allowing people to modify their existing home, or to place a small cottage in their backyard, will increase the supply of affordable units at no costs to taxpayers. This means people of all ages can stay in their communities rather than move away from their family, friends, work or school.

In many cities the permit for a 400-square-foot accessory unit is identical to the one for a 10,000-square-foot McMansion. The impact fees are the same. In SB 1069, we eliminate water and sewer hook-up fees when an existing structure is converted to an accessory dwelling unit and we require those fees to be proportionate to the size or number of water fixtures if it’s a newly-constructed ADU. We also provide exceptions, under certain conditions, to parking requirements and eliminate fire sprinkler requirements if they are not required in the primary dwelling.

How has your home city of Fremont reacted to the ADU bill?

Fremont opposed the bill, but I continue to work with them on how to properly implement the bill and make it one of their solutions to our local housing crunch.

I want to encourage cities to get ahead of this. Stop fighting the second unit phenomenon, and embrace it. Why should you care about a 600-square-foot unit in the backyard or a garage conversion? Let’s care more about providing housing for a new teacher, a nurse at a local hospital, and our family members.

This strategy has the potential, relatively quickly and without costing the state any money, to get people into housing. Think of the attraction for a widow or a widower, who will be able to remain in their neighborhood by building a small unit that could also provide housing for a family.

A lot of smart people are going to figure out ways to make this work. We’re going to see kits offered by different builders. In the next couple of months, the state Housing and Community Development Department will come out with protocols. The city of Santa Cruz already has template plans available online. I hope cities will make the process easier and allow people to import these plans to use elsewhere.

We’re going to see bankers get ahead of this, too. Soon you may be able to take out a loan for a second unit based on the anticipated rent you would get from it. They’re not thinking like that yet, but eventually, it will be nice to see the banks do something good for the consumers of California. 

Speaking of Freemont, address the role of the state in encouraging energy and water innovation and investment—an issue our VerdeXchange Conference has featured for the last nine years throughout California.

When I was elected to the Legislature, the California Energy Commission had a program to give out grants for new, innovative ideas for energy efficiency called the Electric Program Investment Charge. In our zeal for oversight, the Legislature requested a report from the CEC on all those projects. After about four years, it became clear that none of the grants were getting out because CEC staff was spending all their time writing these yearly reports to the Legislature.

I had the idea for a bill that would require the CEC to update us only on changes that had occurred in the past year, so they spend more time getting money out the door. Companies like Porifera, in Hayward, that does forward osmosis on water purification, and another, Hastest Solutions, have received grants from the EPIC program. Hastest is ensuring that equipment is resilient enough to withstand extreme events, so they either go to people who manufactures or are sent prototypes. They put equipment in freezing water, place them in hurricanes, tropics, and test equipment.

There is another electric vehicle company in San Jose that’s opening up their research and development wing called NextEV, with huge implications. It’s not just Tesla that’s making electric vehicles in my district. There are smaller companies that are still in R&D. There’s a way for the state to give out grant money. I’m OK with the fact that there are going to be some new technologies that don’t make it. Everyone who worked for Solyndra quickly had another job because they were all highly trained and cutting edge. Putting out seed money to advance technologies will help accelerate this new economy.

 

 

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